Surface Server, WinARM, WARM? What shall we call it

Subject: General Tech | October 29, 2014 - 12:22 PM |
Tagged: arm, microsoft, windows server

The Register does not specify which version this was, likely a recent but highly modified version, but Microsoft has demonstrated their Server OS running on ARM hardware.  This will give them another inroad to low cost server builds which don't necessarily have Intel or AMD inside, as well as hedging their bets against Linux.  Linux is already happily running on just about any hardware you could want, or will be soon and Microsoft is likely worried about losing share to the open source OS.  It will be interesting to see what Microsoft can offer the price conscious shopper to convince them to spend the money on an OS license when Linux is free.  The days when the older generations of techs who have grown up with large UNIX servers and through Microsoft replacing it are numbered and they have always been one of the obstacles for the growth of upstart young Linux.  The Register also points to the possibility of it being an in house solution to keep the costs of maintaining Microsoft's Cloud applications.

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"That's not a stunning feat: having developed Windows RT – a version of Windows 8 running on ARM chippery – Microsoft clearly has the know-how to get the job done. And it's not an indication that Microsoft intends to make Windows Server on ARM a product. It's just a test."

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Source: The Register

Get your Win7 machines while you still can

Subject: General Tech | October 28, 2014 - 01:46 PM |
Tagged: microsoft, win7, inevitable

It is official, at the end of this month consumers will no longer be able to get their hands on a machine with Windows 7 installed, unless they luck into a machine which has been sitting on the shelves for a while.  If you buy through a corporate account you will still be able to order a machine with Win7 but that will be the only way to get your hands on the OS which is already almost impossible to find.  That puts shoppers in a bit of a bind as Win10 will not arrive for a while yet which leaves Win 8.1 as your only Microsoft based OS.  Of course there is always Linux, now that many games and distribution platforms such as Steam support the free OS it is a viable choice for both productivity and entertainment.  You can get more details at Slashdot or vent your spleen in the comments section.

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"This Friday is Halloween, but if you try to buy a PC with Windows 7 pre-loaded after that, you're going to get a rock instead of a treat. Microsoft will stop selling Windows 7 licenses to OEMs after this Friday and you will only be able to buy a machine with Windows 8.1. The good news is that business/enterprise customers will still be able to order PCs 'downgraded' to Windows 7 Professional."

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Source: Slashdot

Sony PS4 and Microsoft Xbox One Already Hitting a Performance Wall

Subject: General Tech, Graphics Cards | October 27, 2014 - 04:50 PM |
Tagged: xbox one, sony, ps4, playstation 4, microsoft, amd

A couple of weeks back a developer on Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed Unity was quoted that the team had decided to run both the Xbox One and the Playstation 4 variants of the game at 1600x900 resolution "to avoid all the debates and stuff." Of course, the Internet exploded in a collection of theories about why that would be the case: were they paid off by Microsoft?

For those of us that focus more on the world of PC gaming, however, the following week an email into the Giantbomb.com weekly podcast from an anonymous (but seemingly reliable) developer on the Unity team raised even more interesting material. In this email, despite addressing other issues on the value of pixel count and the stunning visuals of the game, the developer asserted that we may have already peaked on the graphical compute capability of these two new gaming consoles. Here is a portion of the information:

The PS4 couldn’t do 1080p 30fps for our game, whatever people, or Sony and Microsoft say. ...With all the concessions from Microsoft, backing out of CPU reservations not once, but twice, you’re looking at about a 1-2 FPS difference between the two consoles.

What's hard is not getting the game to render but getting everything else in the game at the same level of performance we designed from the start for the graphics. By the amount of content and NPCs in the game, from someone who witnessed a lot of optimizations for games from Ubisoft in the past, this is crazily optimized for such a young generation of consoles. This is really about to define the next-generation unlike any other game beforehand.

We are bound from the CPU because of AI. Around 50% of the CPU is used for the pre-packaged rendering parts..

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So, if we take this anonymous developers information as true, and this whole story is based on that assumption, then have learned some interesting things.

  1. The PS4, the more graphically powerful of the two very similarly designed consoles, was not able to maintain a 30 FPS target when rendering at 1920x1080 resolution with Assassin's Creed Unity.
     
  2. The Xbox One (after giving developers access to more compute cycles previously reserved to Kinect) is within a 1-2 FPS mark of the PS4.
     
  3. The Ubisoft team see Unity as being "crazily optimized" for the architecture and consoles even as we just now approach the 1 year anniversary of their release.
     
  4. Half of the CPU compute time is being used to help the rendering engine by unpacking pre-baked lighting models for the global illumination implementation and thus the game is being limited by the 50% remaining performance power the AI, etc.

It would appear that just as many in the media declared when the specifications for the new consoles were announced, the hardware inside the Playstation 4 and Xbox One undershoots the needs of game developers to truly build "next-generation" games. If, as this developer states, we are less than a year into the life cycle of hardware that was planned for an 8-10 year window and we have reached performance limits, that's a bad sign for game developers that really want to create exciting gaming worlds. Keep in mind that this time around the hardware isn't custom built cores or using a Cell architecture - we are talking about very basic x86 cores and traditional GPU hardware that ALL software developers are intimately familiar with. It does not surprise me one bit that we have seen more advanced development teams hit peak performance.

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If the PS4, the slightly more powerful console of the pair, is unable to render reliably at 1080p with a 30 FPS target, then unless the Ubisoft team are completely off the rocker in terms of development capability, the advancement of gaming on consoles would appear to be somewhat limited. Remember the specifications for these two consoles:

  PlayStation 4 Xbox One
Processor 8-core Jaguar APU 8-core Jaguar APU
Motherboard Custom Custom
Memory 8GB GDDR5 8GB DDR3
Graphics Card 1152 Stream Unit APU 768 Stream Unit APU
Peak Compute 1,840 GFLOPS 1,310 GFLOPS

The custom built parts from AMD both feature an 8-core Jaguar x86 architecture and either 768 or 1152 stream processors. The Jaguar CPU cores aren't high performance parts: single-threaded performance of Jaguar is less than the Intel Silvermont/Bay Trail designs by as much as 25%. Bay Trail is powering lots of super low cost tablets today and even the $179 ECS LIVA palm-sized mini-PC we reviewed this week. And the 1152/768 stream processors in the GPU portion of the AMD APU provide some punch, but a Radeon HD 7790 (now called the R7 260X), released in March of 2013, provides more performance than the PS4 and the Radeon R7 250X is faster than what resides in the Xbox One.

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If you were to ask me today what kind of performance would be required from AMD's current GPU lineup for a steady 1080p gaming experience on the PC, I would probably tell you the R9 280, a card you can buy today for around $180. From NVIDIA, I would likely pick a GTX 760 (around $200).

Also note that if the developer is using 50% of the CPU resources for rendering computation and the remaining 50% isn't able to hold up its duties on AI, etc., we likely have hit performance walls on the x86 cores as well.

Even if this developer quote is 100% correct that doesn't mean that the current generation of consoles is completely doomed. Microsoft has already stated that DirectX 12, focused on performance efficiency of current generation hardware, will be coming to the Xbox One and that could mean additional performance gains for developers. The PS4 will likely have access to OpenGL Next that is due in the future. And of course, it's also possible that this developer is just wrong and there is plenty of headroom left in the hardware for games to take advantage of.

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But honestly, based on my experience with these GPU and CPU cores, I don't think that's the case. If you look at screenshots of Assassin's Creed Unity and then look at the minimum and recommended specifications for the game on the PC, there is huge, enormous discrepancy. Are the developers just writing lazy code and not truly optimizing for the hardware? It seems unlikely that a company the size of Ubisoft would choose this route on purpose, creating a console game that runs in a less-than-ideal state while also struggling on the PC version. Remember, there is almost no "porting" going on here: the Xbox One and Playstation 4 share the same architecture as the PC now.

Of course, we might just be treading through known waters. I know we are a bit biased, and so is our reader base, but I am curious: do you think MS and Sony have put themselves in a hole with their shortsighted hardware selections?

UPDATE: It would appear that a lot of readers and commentors take our editorial on the state of the PS4 and XB1 as a direct attack on AMD and its APU design. That isn't really the case - regardless of what vendors' hardware is inside the consoles, had Microsoft and Sony still targeted the same performance levels, we would be in the exact same situation. An Intel + NVIDIA hardware combination could just have easily been built to the same peak theoretical compute levels and would have hit the same performance wall just as quickly. MS and Sony could have prevented this by using higher performance hardware, selling the consoles at a loss out the gate and preparing each platform for the next 7-10 years properly. And again, the console manufacturers could have done that with higher end AMD hardware, Intel hardware or NVIDIA hardware. The state of the console performance war is truly hardware agnostic.

Three strikes; you're out! Microsoft might be abandoning Surface

Subject: General Tech | October 9, 2014 - 01:31 PM |
Tagged: microsoft, surface, fail

It seems that Microsoft might be catching on to something everyone else in the market knew when they first announced their first foray into hardware since the Zune; software companies shouldn't annoy their customer by competing with them.  Ballmer originally tried to assuage companies like Acer by claiming that Surface was just a proof of concept, which was met by disbelief and after 3 iterations of Surface those doubts were proven to be justified. According to Microsoft the Surface 3 is a big hit overseas but as this is their first crack at those markets you can bet that the sales will follow the same precipitous drop we saw for the first Surface in North America. 

The news from DigiTimes today is that Surface 3 will be the last generation of this hybrid tablet.  It could be that Microsoft will now focus on their phones, much to the dismay of those who have used their phones though perhaps the remaining human assets from Nokia will bring forth a new generation of workable devices.

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"Microsoft continues to see weak sales for its Surface Pro 3 tablet and is reportedly planning to cancel the product line since shipment performance has been far lower than expectations, according to sources from the upstream supply chain."

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DirectX 12 Shipping with Windows 10

Subject: Graphics Cards | October 3, 2014 - 03:18 AM |
Tagged: microsoft, DirectX, DirectX 12, windows 10, threshold, windows

A Microsoft blog posting confirms: "The final version of Windows 10 will ship with DirectX 12". To me, this seems like a fairly obvious statement. The loose dates provided for both the OS and the availability of retail games suggest that the two would be launching at roughly the same time. The article also claims that DirectX 12 "Early Access" members will be able to develop with the Windows 10 Technical Preview. Apart from Unreal Engine 4 (for Epic Games subscribers), Intel will also provide source access to their Asteroids demo, shown at Siggraph 2014, to all accepted early access developers.

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Our readers might find this information slightly disappointing as it could be interpreted that DirectX 12 would not be coming to Windows 7 (or even 8.x). While it does not look as hopeful as before, they never, at any point, explicitly say that it will not come to older operating systems. It still might.

Source: Microsoft

Microsoft Introduces Windows 10 to the Enterprise

Subject: General Tech | September 30, 2014 - 11:46 PM |
Tagged: windows 9, Windows 8.1, Windows 7, windows 10, windows, threshold, microsoft

The Windows event for the enterprise, which took place today in San Francisco, revealed the name of the upcoming OS. It is not Windows 9, or One Windows, or just Windows. It will be Windows 10. Other than the name, there is not really any new information from a feature or announcement standpoint (except the Command Prompt refresh that I actually will give a brief mention later). My interest comes from their mindset with this new OS -- what they are changing and what they seem to be sticking with.

If you would like Microsoft's commentary before reading mine, the keynote is embed above.

Okay, so one thing that was shown is "Continuum". If you have not seen its prototype at the end of the above video, it is currently a small notification that appears when a keyboard and mouse is attached (or detached). If a user accepts, this will flip the user interface between tablet and desktop experiences. Joe Belfiore was clear that the video clip was not yet in code, but represents their vision. In practice, it will have options for whether to ask the user or to automatically do some chosen behavior.

windows-10-continuum.jpg

In a way, you could argue that it was necessary to go through Windows 8.x to get to this point. From the demonstrations, the interface looks sensible and a landing point for users on both Windows 7 and Windows 8 paths. That said, I was fine with the original Windows 8 interface, barring a few glitches, like disappearing icons and snapping sidebars on PCs with multiple monitors. I always considered the "modern" Windows interface to be... acceptable.

It was the Windows Store certification that kept me from upgrading, and Microsoft's current stance is confusing at the very least. Today's announcement included the quote, "Organizations will also be able to create a customized store, curating store experiences that can include their choice of Store apps alongside company-owned apps into a separate employee store experience." Similar discussion was brought up and immediately glossed over during the keynote.

Who does that even apply to? Would a hobbyist developer be able to set up a repository for friends and family? Or is this relegated to businesses, leaving consumers to accept nothing more than what Microsoft allows? The concern is that I do not want Microsoft (or anyone) telling me what I can and cannot create and install on my devices. Once you build censorship, the crazies will come. They usually do.

windows-10.png

But onto more important things: Command Prompt had a major UX overhaul. Joe Belfiore admitted that it was mostly because most important changes were already leaked and reported on, and they wanted to surprise us with something. They sure did. You can now use typical keyboard shortcuts, shift to select, ctrl+c and ctrl+v to copy/paste, and so forth. The even allow a transparency option, which is common in other OSes to make its presence less jarring. Rather than covering over what you're doing, it makes it feel more like it overlays on top of it, especially for quick commands. At least, that is my opinion.

Tomorrow, October 1st, Microsoft will launch their "Windows Inside Program". This will give a very early glimpse at the OS for "most enthusiastic Windows fans" who are "comfortable running pre-release software that will be of variable quality". They "plan to share all the features (they) are experimenting with". They seem to actually want user feedback, a sharp contrast from their Windows 8 technical preview. My eye will on relaxing certification requirements, obviously.

Source: Microsoft

Microsoft Offers Double Data (30GB) for Camera Auto-Upload

Subject: General Tech | September 22, 2014 - 03:00 AM |
Tagged: onedrive, microsoft

OneDrive has a base storage limit of 15GB for a free account. Microsoft, in promotion of a setting to automatically upload photos to their storage service, is offering an extra 15GB if you enable this feature before the end of the month. That is 30 total GBs! As of their September 10th blog post, they will also allow files of up to 10GB (!!) in size. That is a pretty big picture or movie.

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Through this initiative, Microsoft hopes that more people will sign up for OneDrive and those with accounts will integrate it into their lives. Large storage capacities, mobile apps, applications for Windows and OSX, large file support, and affordable storage tiers definitely make a compelling platform, one that puts pressure on Google and Dropbox.

The question is whether you trust Microsoft with every photo or video that comes off of any given device. While some could find it compelling to have up to 30GB of extra storage for their cameraphone, without the need to manually sync, I could see others who want to be more selective.

You can enter this promotion before "the end of the month" (which is a little vague).

Source: Microsoft

Developer's View on DirectX 12 Alongside Maxwell Launch

Subject: General Tech, Graphics Cards | September 20, 2014 - 12:06 PM |
Tagged: unreal engine 4, nvidia, microsoft, maxwell, DirectX 12, DirectX

Microsoft and NVIDIA has decided to release some information about DirectX 12 (and DirectX 11.3) alongside the launch of the Maxwell-based GeForce GTX 980 and GeForce GTX 970 graphics cards. Mostly, they announced that Microsoft teamed up with Epic Games to bring DirectX 12 to Unreal Engine 4. They currently have two demos, Elemental and Infiltrator, that are up and running with DirectX 12.

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Moreover, they have provided a form for developers who are interested in "early access" to apply for it. They continually discuss it in terms of Unreal Engine 4, but they do not explicitly say that other developers cannot apply. UE4 subscribers will get access to the Elemental demo in DX12, but it does not look like Infiltrator will be available.

DirectX 12 is expected to target games for Holiday 2015.

Source: Microsoft

Upward mobility for both Linux and Windows

Subject: General Tech, Mobile | September 18, 2014 - 01:11 PM |
Tagged: Red Hat, microsoft, Feedhenry

Red Hat just acquired Feedhenry for around €63.5 million to enhance their ability to support mobile apps.  Feedhenry designs mobile apps on both the client and server side which run on Android, iOS, Windows Phone, QNX and HTML5 as well as integration with apps from companies such as Salesforce, SAP and Oracle.  This purchase could help Red Hat become an attractive alternative for companies wishing to serve apps across all platforms and increased usage of Openshift and Openstack.  The Inquirer also posted news on a extension to the price discount on Microsoft's licensing for mobile developers.  They are still offering lifetime accounts for Dev Center for $19.99 for individuals and $99.99 for businesses, which compares favourably to the one time Android fee of $25 and even better against Apple's $99 per year.  If they could just get their phones to play nicely with O365 this could well increase their market share for mobile phones.

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"RED HAT HAS ACQUIRED Feedhenry, a designer of mobile apps for the enterprise market. The company sees the acquisition as a key driver to offer cross-platform support for its existing software products, including Red Hat Enterprise Linux Openstack 7, which it released earlier this year."

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Source: The Inquirer

Microsoft's Universal Mobile Keyboard Is Coming Soon

Subject: General Tech, Cases and Cooling | September 17, 2014 - 06:57 PM |
Tagged: windows, mobile, microsoft, keyboard, ios, Android

Let me share a story. There was a time, around the first Surface launch, that I worked in an electronics retail store (and the several years prior -- but I digress). At around that time, Microsoft was airing ads with people dancing around, clicking keyboards to the Surface tablet with its magnetic click or snap. One day, a customer came in looking for the keyboard from the TV spots for their iPad. I thought about it for a few seconds and realized how terrible Microsoft's branding actually was.

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Without already knowing the existence of their Windows 8 and RT tablets, which the ads were supposed to convey, it really did look like an accessory for an iPad.

Doing Microsoft's job for them, I explained the Surface Pro and Surface RT tablets along with its keyboard-cover accessories. Eventually, I told them that it was a Microsoft product for their own tablet brand and would not see an iPad release. The company felt threatened by these mobile, touch devices and was directly competing with them.

...

So Microsoft is announcing a keyboard for Windows, Android, and iOS. Sure, it is very different from the Type and Touch Covers; for instance, it does not attach to these devices magnetically. Microsoft has also been known to develop hardware, software, and services for competing platforms. While it is not unsurprising that Microsoft keyboards would work on competing devices, it does feel weird for their keyboard to have features that are specialized for these competing platforms.

There are three things interesting about this keyboard: it has a built-in stand, it has special keys for Android and iOS that are not present in Windows, and it has a built-in rechargeable battery that lasts up to 6 months. The peripheral pairs wirelessly with all of these devices through Bluetooth.

The Microsoft Universal Mobile Keyboard is coming soon for $79.95 (MSRP).

Source: Microsoft